The play, The Winter's Tale was composed by Shakespeare in 1610-11. It has five acts and fifteen scenes. The source of this play is a novel by Robert Greene, Pandosto or The Triumph of Time, first published in * 1588, and again printed in 1607, with the title Dorastus and Fawnia. Shakespeare rearranged the episodes, changed the name and introduced the comedy of Autolycus and shepherds. Statue scene and name of characters were borrowed from Plutarch.
The phrase a "winter's tale" means an old wives' tale, a story narrated to children in the night before they go to bed. It can be connected with some ancient legend or ballad, often exaggerated by the narrator, or it can be a fairy-tale or a story concerned with ghosts. Sicilia's young heir Mamillius in the play is fond of hearing such stories. In Act II, Scene the says to his mother that a tragic story is better for a winter's evening. Such stories are often illogical, full of improbabilities, supernaturalism and wonders or fantastic events. Mamillius, himself, starts narrating a story, "There was a man who dwelt by a Churchyard ..." Coleridge believed that in the second part of the play. The Winter's Tale in Act IV and V, the play describes a tale fit for a long winter evening. While another critic pouits out that the tragic story of the play involving Leontes' irrational jealousy, resulting in unjust and cruel treatment of Queen Hermione is a fitting winter's tale. The play is full of improbabilities, unbelievable, incidents and flouts unities in the structure of the play. The tale has also supernatural and fairy-tale wonders and romantic scenes like a winter's tale. Shakespeare introduces imaginary details in the play, just as an old wives' story in which the heroine is put to a lot of difficulties or chilly situations but ultimately she is successful in surmounting her difficulties and meets a happy or fortunate end.
First part of the play - the long chilly dreary winter
Critics agree that The Winter's Tale has two contrasting and parallel plots which ultimately are linked together to bring the play to a happy note with the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation.
The first tragic part in which irrational jealousy of King Leontes of Sicilia destroys the happy life of Queen Hermione, rightly speaking, presents the long chilly dreary winter for the heroine of the play. She is charged with adultery, treated as a harlot and condemned to lead a secluded life. Her son is taken away from him and she is tried for a sin she has not committed. Leontes' cruel injustice even refutes the oracle of Apollo
declaring her chaste. As a result the Heavens punish King Leontes. His promising son, Mamillius dies of shock of his mother's ill treatment. Hermione also swoons at the sad news of her son's untimely death and later Paulina declares her dead. This is long winter evening for Hermione when chilly dark clouds of shame and destruction make the life of the heroine in the story horrible. She survives but is forced to lead a sad secluded life at a solitary place for sixteen long years, but at the end regains her position through forgiveness and reconciliation.
The second part-a long sad winter evening
The second part of plot is a long sad winter evening for Leontes, who suffers grief due to the loss of his son and wife. He repents how his disobedience to Apollo's oracle declaring Hermione chaste has brought upon him the punishment of the Heavens. He vows to do penitence and for sixteen years he is made to live a 'saint-like-sorrow' life. His penitence leads to regeneration and redemption. He is absolved of his sin.
The comic phase-spring and summer after long winter
Just like 'the winter tale', the long winter in the play in the third comic phase after sixteen years moves towards spring and summer. In England summer is a pleasant season when after the winter, the earth becomes fertile for good crop under the sun. Leontes' lost daughter, Perdita, a charming young shepherdess with un-usual beauty is sixteen years old, and King Polixenes young son, Florizel meet in the pastoral scene in Bohemia (Act IV). They fall in love with each other. Polixenes and Camillo in disguise are also present in a free happy sheep-shearing festival. The old shepherd is asked by Prince Florizel to declare their betrothal. He agrees, but before the announcement King Polixenes throws away his disguise and threatens his son Florizel for marrying a low-born girl. Florizel is faithful to his love and refuses to abide by his father's orders. Camillo who helped in the first escape from Siciliato avoid jealous Leontes' wrath, now helps the young lovers to escape to Sicilia, where regenerated King Leontes would help them. He follows them with Polixenes and in Act V, all important persons of the first scene come together. Paulina in statue-scene brings out Hermione alive. She forgives Leontes, and reconciliation follows. Leontes is united with his wife, daughter and old friend Polixenes. Perdita and Florizel heir to kingdoms of Bohemia and Sicilia are married. So The Winter's Tale comes to a fortunate end.
Like a fairy-tale, in The Winter's tale the supernatural plays a very decisive role. Apollo's oracle plays a crucial role in the story. The oracle declares in Act III of the play that Hermione is chaste, Polixenes is innocent.
Camillo is a loyal subject, Leontes is a tyrant, the infant is legitimate daughter of Leontes. hi this oracle the real justice is announced. Mad with jealousy Leontes rejects the oracle as untrue. Heaven's punishment follows. His son Mamillius dies and Hermione swoons at her son's death and Paulina declares her dead. The oracle brings Leontes to senses. He vows repentance for the injustice done to his virtuous wife, Hermoine. His penance for sixteen years absolves his sin. And the play in Act V ends with a happy reconciliation as ordained by the oracle. Leontes is united with his family and old friend Polixenes. His daughter Perdita and Florizel, son of Polixenes are married.
The play is full of improbabilities and violates the three unities. Edmund Chambers writes about these wonders in the play : Men set sail and are ship-wrecked on the coast of
, where never coast was, a bear comes opportunely to make a meal of the witnesses, and agents of crime. Shepherds find an infant princess with a casket of jewels that looks like fairy gold; a statue steps from its pedestal to become a living breathing woman. Bohemia
Title is mentioned in dialogue of the characters and by critics
Commenting on the recovery of Perdita by her father, a character says (in Act V, Scene ii) : "This news, which is called true, is like an old tale that the verity of it is in strong suspicion". A little later Paulina says, with reference to Hermione (in Act V, Scene iii) :
That she is living,
Were it but told you. Should be hooted at Like an old tale.
Coleridge felt that the second part of the play (Acts IV And V) unfolded a more leisurely tale fit for long winter evenings, while another critic writes : "The first portion of the play, full of chilling suspicion, bitter injustice, and cold-blooded cruelty harmonizes finely with the name of The Winter's Tale. Some find in the title a suggestion that the play is an allegory of the seasons but that is a far-fetched explanation.
Shakespeare named his famous tragedies after the names of main characters like Othello, Macbeth. Hamlet. Antony and Cleopatra, but in his comedies adopted phrases, 'Much Ado', Mid Summer Night's Dream and The Winter's Tale which provide the reader play's theme or atmosphere. The Winter's Tale thus is a correct title giving the substance of the play and its construction as new drama or tragi-comedy or a romance different from his earlier comedies and famous tragedies—a romance with the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation.